A motley collection of students have ventured into activities that go beyond the campus ground, writes Mustafa K Anuar.
Local graduates (and university students generally) have had bad press lately, particularly when Bank Negara issued a report on the high rate of graduate unemployment in the country.
This was compounded recently by Bersatu chairman Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s controversial assertion that graduates were consequently compelled to sell nasi lemak and driving Uber to eke out a living because of limited job opportunities.
Some of them may well be qualified and confident graduates but trapped in circumstances beyond their control.
While these cases may reflect the contemporary situation of some local graduates and students as well, they do not tell the whole story about the entire student population.
For there are a motley collection of students who consciously train their sight on more than just getting good grades (and subsequently high-paying jobs) and are inclined to venture into activities that go beyond the campus ground.
These students, to be sure, are in pursuit of other forms of knowledge, the joy to serve the larger society and intellectual fulfilment, and at the same time raise political consciousness to varying degrees.
In other words, things that would help develop good citizenship out of these students.
Driven by the ideals of social justice and democracy, and youthful enthusiasm, many are also involved in such outside activities to free themselves from the restrictive regime of the authorities, particularly the student affairs’ department (known as Hal Ehwal Pelajar, or HEP in Malay) of the university concerned, which often attempts to blunt their creativity and imagination as well as organic leadership.
Activities outside campus
For Jefry Musa, a final-year social work major at Universiti Sains Malaysia, students constitute one of the social entities that are – and should be – involved in the nation-building process.
Feeling “abandoned by the university and certain lecturers” in his desperate search for some intellectual and social fulfilment, Jefry and like-minded friends from various academic disciplines formed a non-hierarchical collective.
The group focuses on a variety of activities – which reflect the members’ varied backgrounds and interests, some of whom come from the pure sciences – that address issues such as homelessness among low-income groups in Penang and the rising cost of living, which affects the poor and the marginalised.
The group also engages in intellectual discourse. “I was hounded out of campus three times,” said Jefry, “simply because I wanted to form a study group on campus to discuss certain important books.
“If such an activity is not allowed on campus, then what is university really for?”
The formation of a student group, Suara Kolektif, at the International Islamic University of Malaysia in May 2017, however, was triggered by the construction of the automatic barrier lane at the main entrance of its Gombak campus.
Suara Kolektif, said the collective’s coordinator Ainina Sofia Adnan, opposed the implementation of the barrier lane because the views of students and lecturer on the matter were not taken into consideration by the university administrators.
Neither was the university being transparent, added the third-year psychology major, as it did not allow students and others access to the paper work and costing of constructing and implementing the barrier lane.
That is why this collective operates more like a pressure group as it demands transparency on administrative matters, said Ainina.
The primary objective of the collective is to recover student autonomy as well as emphasise campus democracy.
She believes that student activities need not be confined to the campus as the responsibility of the students is to give back to the larger society.
There’s a need to make a difference, irrespective of the nature of activism, volunteerism or politics, she said.
What we – coming from various backgrounds and disciplines – needed, she added, was a space for independent expression that was free of unnecessary bureaucracy.
The regular activity of the collective is to organise small discussions because it feels that offering critical explanation about certain issues to the ordinary people in close quarters is crucial.
At the University of Malaya, the formation of a collective called Siswa Merdeka Universiti Malaya was primarily prompted by the following objectives:
(a) to help develop UM students into all-round individuals
(b) to make intellectual discourse as a culture of the students and
(c) to introduce intellectual activities that will help develop proactive students.
According to the collective’s director, Nurafiqah Saidin, Siswa Merdeka aims to absorb knowledge from outside of university syllabuses with an open mind. Here ideology is seen as important in a process towards achieving a certain level of maturity in the search for truth.
This, she said, involved six main topics that participants needed to pay close attention to: activism, politics, history, economics, philosophy and the environment.
The four-month-old Siswa Merdeka has become a convenient platform for critical discussion regarding contemporary politics, and it distinguishes itself from other student groups on campus in that it is non-partisan and intellectual in nature.
There’s another student group at the University of Malaya, and that is Demokrat Universiti Malaya, said its founder, Daniel Mizan Qayyum.
The objective of this group is to help develop a campus community that understands and appreciates the principle of democracy that is in consonance with local communities.
Like Suara Kolektif, Demokrat UM also places importance on engagement with local communities, such as the one in nearby Pantai Dalam, where they provide workshops on anti-sexual harassment to schoolchildren. This is apart from networking with student groups from other public universities.
On the eastern front, namely Sabah, there are also a few groups of student activists with similar concerns striking their own paths. They are Kelab Sastera Mahasiswa Universiti Malaysia Sabah (Karma), Suara Mahasiswa Universiti Malaysia Sabah and Ikatan Anak Muda Sabah.
According to Sabir Syarifuddin, Karma’s executive committee member for its intellectual development and journalism portfolio, the collective’s slogan is literature, intellectualism and humanities, while Suara Mahasiswa UMS focuses on welfare, intellectualism and humanities.
Ikatan Anak Muda Sabah aims to attract the young of Sabah to be concerned about social development in the various regions in the state.
Their involvement, said Sabir, is basically driven by the contention that whatever achievement that the students have attained so far is made possible by the rakyat via their tax money and their sweat in the nation-building process.
“We would like to pay back through our community activities, such as discussing problems or challenges that the people face and, wherever possible, offer solutions,” he said.
Most of the activities that relate to communities often involve concerned members of the general public, which include civil societies, lecturers and other activists, he added.
Funding for activities
Like many other student activities, funding for these outside activities is crucial for their effective implementation and the continuity of such programmes.
In the interest of securing autonomy, many groups seek ways to raise funds so that they are not influenced by or dependent on particular sections of society.
Daniel’s collective funds itself through selling T-shirts, while Jefry’s group makes money from zines or books that it publishes, and at times digs into its members’ own pockets.
In the case of the programme to help the homeless, Jefry and friends seek financial assistance from the public.
The Siswa Merdeka collective, on the other hand, receives funding from Team Selangor, a Selangor government-initiative that provides a community development programme.
According to the programme officer of Team Selangor, Divya Devi, the activities of Team Selangor, which include the provision of facilities and networking for student groups, revolve around the values of student or youth empowerment and volunteerism.
Students’ involvement in activities outside of campus is not a new phenomenon, said former student activist Mohd Hariszuan Jaharudin.
Ever since the establishment of the University of Malaya in Singapore in 1949, students have been involved in community activities, he said.
Similarly, he said, such activities prevailed during the student movement of the early 1970s although they were slowly being “supervised” or controlled like schoolchildren via the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 with the setting up of HEPs in public universities.
Subsequently, he added, students found themselves trapped in the bureaucratic rigmarole of the HEP, which imposed all sorts of conditions and various forms to be filled in by students.
This, he said, later led to a “cycle of stupidity” in universities.
The reformasi movement, sparked by the unceremonious dismissal of Anwar Ibrahim from government, witnessed the revival of student activism in the country, Hariszuan said.
“Many student groups and individuals had repositioned themselves within the larger political changes at the time. They, then, were given support from several former student activists, such as Hishamuddin Rais, as a way of reconnecting them to the long history of student movement in Malaysia.
“What is most evident after 2008 was the emergence of a new wave where there existed an immense interest among students to get involved in activities outside campus.
“However, owing to their inability to organise – a consequence of legal restraints and lack of organisational training (because many youth and sports associations are controlled by politicians) – students have consciously or otherwise started to form loose social and political groups many of which are founded on culture, such as poetry, discussion and musical groups.”
Adam Adli Abdul Halim, a former student activist who has had a few brushes with the authorities and the law in recent times, feels the close interface between students and the larger society has existed for a long while as many of them have been exposed to this kind of social environment.
This is especially so, he added, when the social analyses the students conducted brought them closer to the larger community.
HEP activities v external activities
“Although there are activities by these student groups that are also offered by HEP,” said Hariszuan, “students are burdened with lots of procedures and no autonomy is given to students to determine the programme content.”
Hariszuan’s contention about HEP echoes the sentiments harboured by independent writer Lim Hong Siang, who was also active in his student days.
“There are too many restrictions on campus,” said Lim. “For instance, to hold a forum, the organisers would need to supply information to HEP regarding the topic and names of panellists before it is approved.
“Usually, if the topic is considered ‘sensitive’ or the panellists are the pro-opposition sorts or opposition individuals themselves, it would be censored, and would take a long time to get approval, if at all, to the extent that the topic would become stale by the time the forum is held.”
Although there are activities conducted under the mandate of the HEP, added Lim, there are students who would still seek outside activities.
He likened this situation to fish which, if given the choice, would opt for the sea over the aquarium as the former offers more freedom.
But, he cautioned, there were indeed fish that consciously chose the aquarium for “dedak”.
Hariszuan added: “Some of the HEP activities are criticised for being superficial, such as a forum on love after marriage.
“As a result, students are given the illusion that they are active in association work when they really are burdened with activities such as functions and feasts.”
Hariszuan said most of the student groups outside campus did not have a clear organisational structure, and hence they became event- or activity-based.
“Many of them form loose alliances with different groups for a particular event or issue, without having any clear ideology. At times, they clash.
“Their relationship is more networking than organisational in nature.
“These groups often hold activities, such as forums, discussions, poetry recitation, book dissection, interviews and other leisurely activities that do not require a rigid format.
“They are at liberty to determine the programme content, which varies from volunteer work – such as giving free tuition classes to schoolkids and providing free meals to the homeless – to other community activities that serve urban poor, squatters and the marginalised.”
“Students go out of campus to indulge in activities for communities,” said Lim, “because the exposure to theories in class often compel some of the students to try to reach out to their ideals in the ‘real world’.”
“For instance,” he said, “the theory of oppression may drive students to do something to help change society. Besides, they feel it is useless to acquire knowledge without applying it in society.”
Adam said the link between students and the larger society is made possible by the former’s concern for and sensitivity to the various developments in the country.
The students, added Adam, did not feel that the framework laid down by the HEP and the university resonates with their academic and social needs and wants.
Gains from outside activities
Students, said Hariszuan, can gain three objectives arising from their outside activities.
One, these activities provide them the opportunity to operate as a collective and to organise themselves effectively in facing challenges.
Two, through the activities of discussions, forums, etc, they learn to organise and articulate their thoughts and ideas and also embrace differences of opinions.
Three, these activities help students from various academic disciplines to apply what they learn in lectures to the various aspects of the outside world.
In the long term, said Hariszuan, students would be able to acquire a structural analysis of issues, which is important.
“Thus, for instance, poverty will no longer been considered merely a problem of personal attitude, but a structural one that requires a systemic transformation.
“All these objectives go a long way towards paving the path to the vital politicisation of university students as a whole.”
According to Lim, the impact of the students’ social engagement is that the senior students help to raise social consciousness among the juniors within this cohort of students.
At the very least, he added, students were offered alternative ideas and exposed to towering figures and ideas that probably did not emerge or were not considered important in the mainstream group.
Adam feels that society gains from this kind of students’ involvement because in difficult times, there are students in the country who have a critical mind and are ready to fight not only for their own interests but also of those in the larger society.
Such outside activities, said Hariszuan, help students to position themselves in the nation’s politics.
“These students have built a form of new social movement that is not confined to a particular ideology or organisation.
“They have demonstrated that a social movement can also adapt itself to a changing environment – including when the democratic space becomes ever more shrinking.
“It is hoped that these groups of students would contribute to the development of civil society that is active and critical.”
Source: The Malaysian Insight